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Essential fatty acid (EFA) deficiency exerts a striking protective effect in several animal models of autoimmune disease. We now report that EFA deprivation prevents diabetes in the BB rat, an animal model of human insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. In diabetes-prone (DP)-BB rats, the incidences of spontaneous diabetes and insulitis (the pathological substrate of autoimmune diabetes) were greatly reduced by EFA deficiency. This beneficial effect of the deficiency state was also seen in diabetes-resistant (DR)-BB rats that, after treatment with antibody to eliminate RT6+ T cells, would otherwise have become diabetic. The susceptibility of EFA-deprived DP-BB rats to spontaneous diabetes was restored when they were given dietary supplements of linoleate at 70 d of age (during the usual period of susceptibility), but not when they were repleted beginning at 120 d (after the peak incidence of diabetes). EFA deficiency did lead to growth retardation, but calorically restricted control rats demonstrated that the protective effect of the deficiency state was not a function of decreased weight. To examine the relationship between the biochemical changes of EFA deficiency and its physiological effects in this system, we compared the fatty acid changes that occurred in EFA-deficient animals that did and did not develop diabetes. Nondiabetic animals had significantly lower levels of (n-6) fatty acids (i.e., linoleate and arachidonate) and higher levels of oleate, an (n-9) fatty acid, than did diabetic animals. Levels of 20:3(n-9), the fatty acid that uniquely characterizes EFA deficiency, were similar in both groups, however. Among diabetic EFA-deficient rats, the age at onset of diabetes was found to correlate inversely with the level of (n-6) fatty acids, the least depleted animals becoming diabetic earliest, whereas there was no correlation with levels of 20:3(n-9). Among animals repleted with linoleate beginning at 70 d, restoration of susceptibility to diabetes correlated with normalization of the level of arachidonate. In summary, EFA deprivation reduced the frequency of diabetes in both DP and RT6- depleted DR-BB rats. This protective effect was strongly associated with depletion of (n-6) fatty acids, particularly arachidonate, but not with accumulation of the abnormal 20:3(n-9). Conjecturally, arachidonate and/or a metabolite may play a key role in mediating inflammatory injury in this animal model of autoimmune diabetes.